If you’re one of the 11.4 million people over 65 or if you are caring for (or care about) your ageing parents and grandparents, then you may be familiar with the tricky balance of wanting to encourage them to stay active but not do any harm. Often our efforts to make life easier for them can be exactly the opposite of what is best.
Our natural response when we see loved ones struggling to get upstairs, or huffing and puffing doing the housework, is to say “Sit down, I’ll do that!” What we really need to say is “Do as much as you can manage; well done you!” So when do we need to step in? What can we ignore and when should the alarm bells ring? Here’s a list of the five things you need to spot and what you can do about them to turn back the ageing clock.
Can you get up from a chair without using your arms?
Did you know that by the time someone is in their 80s they can have lost up to half their muscle mass? So for them, getting out of a chair becomes a real challenge; in fact, it’s the equivalent of someone in their 40s getting out of a chair using only ONE leg! (If you’ve just tried doing that you’ll have some empathy for your Grandparents now).
If you can’t, this is a sign of sarcopenia which is the loss of muscle that leads to frailty. It’s a subtle decline so we often don’t realise that we’re using our arms to push ourselves up and often flopping down into a chair without any control when we sit.
Does it matter? Absolutely! This is a warning sign that you’re on a downward spiral so it’s time to act and the solution is simple. All you need is a sturdy upright chair and 30 seconds every day.
• Sit forward on the chair so you can pull your heels back under your knees
• Sit up tall and tighten your tummy muscles slightly
• Rock forwards bringing your nose over your toes and push upwards swiftly to stand
• Lower yourself safely back into the chair and repeat as many times as you can.
If you need to use your arms at first, that’s okay. As you improve you’ll be able to do this faster and more easily, even with your arms across your chest. If your knees are groaning, try placing a cushion on the chair to lift yourself up a little higher.
Research has shown these to be scores to aim for:
Are you able to get up from the floor?
If you’re a gardener, you’ll know how important it is to get up from a kneeling position and may well take this for granted as part and parcel of living an active life. But what if you’re starting to struggle?
It’s little wonder we called our exercise programme Move it or Lose it, because this is exactly what happens if we stop doing a particular movement. Even if it’s a bit of a challenge, don’t give up, keep on doing it and more often!
As long as you haven’t got any serious knee problems or joint replacements, try this exercise on a carpet.
• From a standing position, kneel down on one leg, then the other
• Now try to get back up by placing one foot on the floor and pushing up to stand
You might need to use your hands at first, or have a piece of furniture there to help. But keep practising and your leg muscles will soon respond and this will get easier.
Although we don’t like to mention the ‘F’ word (falls), many people have to call an ambulance after a fall, not because they are hurt but because they simply cannot get back up unaided. So keep those leg muscles as strong as possible for as long as possible.
Can you put your socks on when standing?
This is a tricky one as you don’t want to try this if your have poor balance, better to sit down and be safe, but it does act as a red flag to alert you to the fact you’re getting more wobbly. Here you need to take heed and do something about it.
It’s a good idea to test out your balance regularly. In our Move it or Lose it classes we incorporate balance exercises and it frequently comes as a bit of a shock when we ask someone to take our balance screening test. When asked about balance they often say it’s absolutely fine; then when they stand in tandem stance (with one foot directly in front of the other) they realise they’re not as steady as they thought.
The good news is, we can make improvements if we practice balance exercises regularly. We suggest doing this simple heel raise exercise when you’re washing up.
• Stand at the kitchen sink and hold on with both hands
• Lift up both heels to balance on the balls of your feet
• Hold for up to 10 seconds then relax and repeat 5 times
• As you gain confidence, try holding on with one hand, then fingertips, then freestanding
• If you find this easy, try turning your head slowly from side to side when you’re balancing (remember you can put your heels down or hold on at any time)
Walking slowly and shuffling
I remember distinctly when I became aware of my mum doing the shuffle walk; instead of picking up her feet to walk in a normal gait, she was sliding her feet along the floor like they were stuck to it. There are lots of things that can cause this, often a fear of falling is one of them, yet by shuffling there’s a far great risk of you tripping over the mat.
Use this as a signal to intervene and get along to an exercise class to work on flexibility, strength and confidence. Ask your doctor about falls prevention classes, or use our class finder where you will be guided through progressive exercises that are really effective (and good fun).
One of the exercises we do – which you can do every day at home – is the foot flexor to maintain flexibility in the ankle and help with walking gait.
• Sit on an upright chair with feet hip width apart
• Imagine a pound coin is on the floor in line with the arch of one foot
• Now place your heel, then your toes, onto the ‘coin’
• Gradually increase the range of movement so you can really lift up your toes
• Do 10 on each foot
Do you avoiding drinking for fear of needing the loo when you’re out?
We become less aware of being thirsty as we age yet dehydration can lead to confusion and urine infections. Many of the people I teach confide that they try not to drink before coming to class in case they need the loo on the way.
Just like all our other muscles, the pelvic floor muscles also decline in strength as we age, particularly if we don’t exercise them. There is a common misunderstanding that pelvic floor exercises are only for women (and usually after pregnancy) whereas we all need to do them – every day!
There’s no quick fix here, it takes at least 12 weeks to start to see improvements, so get started on doing this exercise and set yourself a reminder so it becomes as habitual as brushing your teeth.
You can do these standing, sitting or lying down. This is to activate the ‘slow twitch’ muscles which help with maintaining control with a full bladder.
• Draw up the back passage as it trying to stop passing wind.
• Bring this ‘drawing up’ sensation through to the front passage as if trying to stop passing urine
• Draw up the muscles as far as possible, but don’t clench your buttocks or pull your tummy in
• Try to hold for up to 10 seconds, then release slowly and relax
• Rest for 3 seconds then repeat, build up to doing 10 repetitions
To locate the right muscles, imagine you have to stop passing urine mid-flow; you may need to do this once or twice when you’re actually on the loo, but don’t do it regularly as not emptying the bladder completely may lead to infections. Do seek help from your GP if you have a persistent problem, as there are many solutions available and there’s no need to suffer in silence.
Although getting older may be inevitable, there’s still plenty we can do to take control, turn back the clock and age well!